Library of Congress, Original photo by Warren K. Leffler
Sure, color film existed in 1963. And sure, there are probably color photos of this day in history. But the vast majority of the imagery we’re used to seeing is black-and-white — such as, for example, the digitized photos in the Library of Congress (LOC).
But what if we could see them in color?
The act of colorizing photographs is as old as photography itself. Magic lanterns, autochromes, etc.: It was all done by hand. For some reason, though, my jaw dropped when a coworker directed me to a group on Reddit called Colorized History. Only a few months old, it has about 16 regular contributors — and approximately 24,000 subscribers. Their work has been circulating around the web a lot lately, and they’re not the only people doing this, but they’re really good.
I’d been doing a lot of image research for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington when I first came across the Reddit group — and had the LOC photos in the back of my mind. On a whim, and not expecting to ever hear back, I posted in the forum. I was curious to see if they’d be willing to experiment with these March on Washington photos.
The response was amazing. Mads Madsen, a college freshman in Denmark was the first to shoot me an email. Then I heard from Jordan Lloyd in the U.K. And pretty soon everyone in the group had snagged a photo, and worked over the weekend to colorize this day in history. It took some detective work for Madsen to demystify that flag hanging in the Oval Office. And we even chatted as a group on Skype for a bit so I could get to know them better.
To pre-empt the potential naysayers out there: These “colorizers,” as they call themselves, are the first to admit that they’re not claiming accuracy. You can research an official state flag to know its colors — but it’s much harder to know the color of a woman’s a-line skirt or a hand-painted poster. In one interesting example, “colorizers” Sanna Dullaway and Deborah Humphries both worked on the same photo. The final images are surprisingly similar — but with some little sartorial differences.
Via email, Madsen explained that a single image can take up to 10 hours depending on its complexity. (Here’s his explainer.) So why do it? Well, I can’t speak for them. But to me, the color — even if not entirely accurate — looks authentic. It adds a sense of immediacy and palpability to scenes that otherwise feel like the distant past — rather than a recent, relevant part of our history, which it is.
I recognize the irony here. As M.L.K. famously proscribed on this day in history: We should not be judging by color. Because back then, “colored” had a loaded, downright negative connotation. But the way I see it, we’ve moved past that — and at the end of the day, our past is colorful. Nuanced, weird and sometimes terrible, yes, but colorful. Life is not black and white. And that’s something, especially today, to be celebrated.